Odes to the “ettes” – usherettes

Craig McLachlan is an unusual inspiration for usherettes, but he, and the series The Doctor Blake Mysteries, provided it last Friday night. The Crossing the Line episode featured the murder of a projectionist at The Rex cinema in Ballarat.

Craig McLachlan as Doctor Lucien Blake

Craig McLachlan as Doctor Lucien Blake. Photo courtesy Euro Crime.

But something was not quite right when Jean Beazley (aka Nadine Garner), Dr Lucien Blake’s housekeeper, takes a Friday night trip to the movies to see her favourite actor James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart in a new film Vertigo. Jean is disappointed because she didn’t like seeing ‘Jimmy’ in such a strange and unsympathetic role.

Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in a scene from the film "Vertigo", with the church as a pivotal location in the film

Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart in a scene from the film “Vertigo”, with the church as a pivotal location in the film. Photos in public domain.

I was disappointed too, but not by Vertigo – it is one of my favourite Hicthcock films. Jean walked unescorted up the cinema steps and chose her own seat. Wasn’t it cinema protocol for an elegantly groomed, uniform-clad usherette with her big powerful torch to illuminate the way in the darkness and spotlight the seat that matched the patron’s ticket number?

More scenes from the 1958 film "Vertigo"

More scenes from the 1958 film “Vertigo”. Photos in public domain.

The second series of The Doctor Blake mysteries is set in the late1950s, a time when usherettes provided extra glamour to the cinema-going public. The cinema lights were floodlit from the back, so when the usherettes with perfect posture carried their ice-cream trays, they appeared to glide down the steps, their faces bathed in a golden halo of light, as lovely as the starlets on the silver screen.

Boots Mallory who made the transition from usherette at the Lyric Theatre, Albamba, to the Ziegfeld Follies, New York and then moved to Hollywood

Boots Mallory who made the transition from usherette at the Lyric Theatre, Albamba, to the Ziegfeld Follies, New York and then moved to Hollywood. Photo in public domain.

I was so in love with an usherette I could hardly breathe… Christopher Fowler

Uniformed usherettes were integral to the experience of going to the cinema in the last century, especially from the 1920s until the decline of cinema-going in the 1960s and 1970s. There would be a commissionaire to greet customers, a hat-check person, attendants and usherettes. The detail and variation in uniforms were part of a cinema’s identity.

"Blondes, brunettes, redheads." E. J. Myrick, manager of the Colombia Theatre, Portland, Oregon, designed his ushers' costumes himself

“Blondes, brunettes, redheads.” E. J. Myrick, manager of the Colombia Theatre, Portland, Oregon, designed his ushers’ costumes himself. Photo in public domain.

War time cinema-goers with usherette at the top of the stairs

War time cinema-goers with usherette at the top of the stairs. Photo in public domain.

I was lucky enough to find these photographs tucked away in the Queensland State Library Archives to help recall the ‘golden age of the usherette’ and the splendour of heritage cinemas – take a look the line of young ladies dressed in the uniforms of dropped waisted dresses and matching caps at the Wintergarden Theatre in Brisbane in 1926.

Usherettes at the Wintergarden Theatre in Brisbane, 1926

Usherettes at the Wintergarden Theatre in Brisbane, 1926. Photo in public domain – Queensland State Library.

Just imagine the fun Myrtle Brannigan and her mates would have had working at the Ipswich Wintergarden Theatre in 1936 when the design of the ‘uniform’ was based around the film being screened. Myrtle is photographed dressed to suit the fiIm The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. I wonder what the uniform de jour was in 1939 when the epic Gone With The Wind was premiered – somehow I can’t picture Myrtle in a crinoline hoop skirt navigating her way through the aisles to show patrons to their seats.

Myrtle Brannigan, Ipswich Wintergarden Theatre, 1936

Myrtle Brannigan, Ipswich Wintergarden Theatre, 1936. Photo in public domain – Queensland State Library.

Even, Barbie, the perennial career-girl, who has been everything from astronaut to zooloogist, was once an usherette!  Sadly, both ‘ushererette Barbie’ and the real thing are now collectors’ items and relics from the past.

Usherette Barbie

Usherette Barbie. Photo copyright © 2011-2014 Diamonds and Dolls & Weefoke Empire. All rights reserved.

What caused the ultimate demise of the usherette? Was it the introduction of Gold Class Cinemas, where patrons can recline on sofas, pre-order almost anything to tempt their tastebuds (from French champagne and caviar to soft-drinks and pizza), and watch the film on a giant screen? Or perhaps it was the increase in the number of homes that have a dedicated cinema room?

Those of us who don’t have a spare $100 to indulge in Gold Class each time we want to see a film, or don’t have a dedicated cinema room in our homes with a TV screen almost the size of a wall, truly lament the passing of the days when a trip to the pictures was a real treat – dressing up and sharing the experience with others in the audience. Collectively we would laugh, cry, be amazed or frightened as we all saw the film for the first time. And the usherettes who led us to our seats and sold us ice-creams during the interval made it extra special.

Rex Cinema

Rex Cinema. Photo in public domain.

Nota Bene: The Doctor Blake Mysteries episode Crossing the Line needed Jean to walk up the steps of the cinema in full light so she could lock eyes with Richard Taylor aka Tom Burlinson. Richard’s admiration for the loyal and dedicated Jean looks like it might blossom into romance, and we get the idea that Lucien has mixed emotions about this possibility. But, in the end, Richard is the murderer. Lucien gets him to confess and turn himself in as it is the honourable thing to do and something that Jean expects. Good to see these three stalwarts of Australian television, film and theatre: Craig McLachlan, Nadine Garner and Tom Burlinson together in one episode.

 

2 Comments on Odes to the “ettes” – usherettes

  1. yvonne
    March 17, 2014 at 2:49 am (3 years ago)

    well do I remeber the usherettes! thanks for the memories…please keep writing and researching!

    Reply
  2. Bec
    March 17, 2014 at 4:31 am (3 years ago)

    Adored reading this piece on “usherettes”. The photos are also fascinating. Righto, now which other ‘ettes’ can you come up with? xxx

    Reply

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